Friday, August 31, 2007

Tony Snow's vow of poverty

White House press secretary Tony Snow announced this morning that he will resign from his post on September 14th. Since replacing the clueless and easily flustered Scott McClellan, who reminded me of "Flounder" from the movie Animal House every time a reporter asked him a question more complicated that what Thursday's soup was in the White House mess, Snow will rank somewhere at the very top of presidential press secretaries for his near unparalleled ability to stonewall reporters while leaving 'em laughing. Snow is a smart, attractive and personable man, and he used those traits to stiff arm reporters by making them feel that, "Hey, Tony's just doing his job . . . what are you gonna do?" Has there ever been a press secretary so capable of standing in front of White House reporters and just flat out lie about an administration's conduct? Snow understood that the press secretary-White House reporter relationship is nothing more than pornography for the ex-high school student government set: there is little or no plot in a White House press briefing, you know exactly what is going to happen, the characters are all very familiar and predictable and chosen for their ability to play a certain role and once the deed is done and the cameras are turned off, it's time to yuk it up and compare horror stories about the carpool line over at the National Cathedral School. Nothing is personal; it's just business.

Snow had a great strategy for dealing with questions about his boss's incompetence -- he simply didn't answer them or he simply made up pure corn syrup about Bush's action or inaction of any number of topics, and didn't seem to mind when it was time to go home that he had spent his days withholding important information from the public. Here's an eBay worthy transcript from March 2007, when Snow attempted to defend Bush's management of Iraq, a White House proposal to overhaul immigration and the behavior of Alberto Gonzales and the Regents University law school class of 2000 over at the Justice Department. Really, is this guy good or what?

Politics aside, who came blame Snow for coming to the conclusion that a family just can't make it on $168,000 a year? Asked earlier this year if his battle with colon cancer would require him to leave his perch earlier than he planned, Snow responded, “I’m not going to be able to go the distance, but that’s primarily for financial reasons. I’ve told people when my money runs out, then I’ve got to go.” Snow had made "much more " as a commentator for FOX News before coming over to the White House in April 2006, and the financial strain just proved too damn much.

I'm not sure whose left over at the White House with any hiring authority, but if whoever it is called me this afternoon and offered me Snow's job, I'd join the ranks of the Montgomery County professional class that buys a new car when it's time for an oil change, puts their kids in private schools just to tell their friends how much it costs and join some sort of "club" where I'm greeted in the circular parking lot by well-scrubbed young men and women who call me "sir" and not disaffected artists at Blockbuster who shout, "Next!" before they sneer at my movie choices.

Tony Snow is not Larry Craig by any stretch -- he's far worse because he's a smart, well-informed guy who stands in front of people every day and lies about matters of life and death to protect the interests of his boss. Snow and Craig have one thing in common, though, and that is they each believe that their membership in the elite political class of Washington entitles them to something more than everyone else. Snow needs to make more money because that's what people like him are entitled to after roughing it out as a "public servant" for a year and change. Craig believes he shouldn't have to account for his bizarre behavior because he is a United States senator.

I hope Tony Snow recovers fully from cancer and lives to see his children get married and have his grandchildren. I hope Larry Craig sorts through his personal demons and gets his life together. I hope as they think about the twists and turns of their owns lives, some of which were unfortunate strokes of luck and others of which were conscious choices, they realize that there are lots of people out in the real world who would love to earn $168,000 per year (with a complete health care package) or live in a society that doesn't force them into bus stations for underground sexual encounters. In other words, they might want to get to know the public that they so movingly talk about their desire to serve.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Students are biased, too . . . so what?

So I confessed yesterday the shocking news that professors have points of view, sometimes feel strongly about their own research and scholarship and like to share, in different ways, those opinions with their students. To distill, in uncharacteristic fashion, the point of that piece to its essence, I suggested that, in the end, it doesn't matter what professors think or what their opinions are. What matters is how well the student challenges his or herself, and how honest a student is willing to be about s/he does or doesn't know. What I believe or how I vote is no more relevant to a student's education than a student's decisions are to my own life.

I have colleagues who make no bones about where they stand on almost anything, and others who make a special effort to "hide" their opinions for fear of "prejudicing" their students' perceptions of them. After almost twenty years of teaching at the college level, I don't think it really matters how professors handle their "opinions" as long as they create space for a student to introduce and defend their own ideas.

Here's the real question for students who wonder how their professor's "biases" affect their in-class experience: Do students ever think for a moment about their own biases, and how those biases affect their perceptions of their professors?

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't spend a lot of time guessing or even thinking about what my professors' politics were. I spent most of my time thinking about:

1. Whether the girl that I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess three weeks later in a bar that she would have if I had only asked her out 33 more times? Yes!)

2. Whether I had enough money to go out Friday and Saturday night, or whether I would be stuck home pretending to study one of those nights because I was broke. (Answer: No; yes.)

3. If I made a A in this class, would that move my GPA up enough to get into the "reach" graduate school to which I applied? Or what if I made a B? Or C? (Answer: I don't know. I got in where I wanted to and hoped like hell I didn't get a call saying there had been a bureaucratic snafu and I was back on the street.)

4. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess after graduation that she always liked me, and was afraid of liking me "too much?" Yes!)

5. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No, without a caveat.)

So, no, I didn't wonder very much if my professor in whatever class I was taking was a Communist, a socialist, an atheist, a Republican, gay, lived with his mother, killed small animals as a child just for fun, smoked dope, was a reformed arsonist, a secret cross-dresser and so on. I spent much more time, when I wasn't thinking about which cute girl was going to turn me down for a date, about the opinions of my classmates, and what could have possibly happened to them that caused them to say some of things that they did. Dropped on their head? Locked in a shed? Brainwashed by foreign, no, extraterrestrial agents? Denied food and water for extensive periods of time? Suffering from an untreated concussion? The list was endless . . .

But that was really one of the funnest parts of college -- getting a chance to hear views, opinions, accents and beliefs that you had never heard before (and, depending where you moved after college was over, you might never hear again). And now, colleges emphasize intellectual diversity in their admissions decisions (sometimes linking them to race and ethnicity, but that is a whole different subject) because they want the undergraduate experience to be that exposes students to different points of view.

Great. All for it.

But that means students will come into the classroom with biases of their own. And just as professors must evaluate students objectively on graded assignments, students must learn to evaluate professors objectively without regard to their own opinion. I'd much rather have a student just come right out and say, "You know, that guy is an asshole!" rather than feel that s/he couldn't get a fair shake on the basis of their opinion. Teach long enough and enough students will conclude that you are an asshole (or a fuckhead, shitbrain, prick, whatever) regardless of their self-styled political philosophies, but very few believe that my opinions, whatever they may, got in the way of a fair evaluation. For me, as for any college teacher, students need to understand that they are going to get a high, hard one right down the middle regardless of whether they think they agree with me or not. A student needs to develop the self-awareness and the maturity to realize that they should not always blame me if they ground out or whiff. My only obligation is to put the ball over the plate. The rest is up to you.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Larry Craig's friends at FOX News

On Monday, August 27th, news of Larry Craig's bathroom bust only rated 3:47 of airtime between 5 and 11 p.m on FOX News. MSNBC gave the story 8:26 of play, while CNN clocked in at 20:38.

Must have been a slow news day over at FOX. What other explanation could there be?

Larry Craig gets his Ted Haggard on

Larry Craig, the latest "family values" Republican to find himself having to explain private behavior inconsistent with his very public commitment to unequal rights for gays, made it official earlier this afternoon at his hastily called press conference: he did not have sex with that woman.

Except in this case, Craig substituted "man" for "woman."

“Let me be clear,” Craig, the United States Senate's second-longest serving member said. “I am not gay, I never have been gay.”

And . . .

"I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct."

A man is arrested in a public place every day for having sex with someone he probably would prefer not to have anyone find out about. But it is not everyday that a United States senator who has built a good part of his public image as a crusader for "family values," a catch-all phrase that essentially means women should not have the right to make reproductive decisions or decisions about anything other than the content of their children's lunch boxes, gays should not have equal rights in American society, the government at all levels should have the power to enforce archaic laws punishing consensual adults for having sex in positions and with people they find distasteful (or perhaps too gymnastically demanding), religious groups should receive preferential treatment in government programs and not have to account to public authorities for anything they do, and, above all, no one should ever question a decision made by a Republican office-holder.

No, a prominent "family values" Republican doesn't get arrested in a public bathroom everyday for allegedly soliciting anonymous sex.

Once a month is more like it.

Is Craig's alleged public behavior really the big news story here? After television mega-preacher Ted Haggard and John McCain Florida campaign chairman Robert Allen were caught engaging in or soliciting gay sex (both times with prostitutes), Senator David Vinter, a Republican senator from Louisiana turns up on the "D.C. Madam's" call list and Rudy Giuliani's South Carolina campaign treasurer gets arrested for cocaine possession, there is a huge "yawn" factor here. Feigning shock over a public official's hypocritical behavior ranks right up there with the short memories of establishment Washingtonians foaming at the mouth over Alberto Gonzales's unwillingness to admit to lying before Congress or pressing an incoherent John Ashcroft to sign over his authority to the White House while on his sickbed. Politicians behaving badly can only come as a shock to people who really believe the civics-book version of how American politics works.

The bigger news story, to me anyway, is the note at the bottom of the arresting officer's police report.

After Craig was confronted by the on-duty police officer in the Minneapolis airport bathroom, he handed the officer his business card identifying him as a United States Senator and said, "What do you think of that?"

I have learned, in 18 years of living in Washington, D.C., that the second-most popular comment by persons who consider themselves as essential figures in governing and instructing the rest of us after, "Yes, I am available to speak with the media," is "Do you have any idea who I am?" I have watched senators and congressmen waived ahead of me in restaurant lines after taking out their business cards identifying themselves as very important people. I have had mysteriously famous people (I didn't recognize them) given passes to movies that I had been told were sold out. I once witnessed a congressman get a Starbucks manager to open the store earlier than the 6 a.m. time listed on the door because he just "had to have coffee." So did I -- I was taking my son to a 6.45 a.m. hockey game -- but I had resolved to wait the four minutes until the doors open.

* * * * * * * * * *

Just how important am I? I forgot my AU I.D. this morning when I walked over to the gym from my office to take a shower after riding my bike to work. Although I was greeted by name by the desk attendant ("Hi, Dr. Ivers! Are you excited for the semester to start?") she would not let me in because I did not have my I.D.

"But you know I come here all the time and I just renewed by locker. Can't you just let me in so I don't have to go back to my office?"

"Sorry," she said. "We have a new policy this year."

"I don't think I've ever taught you. How do you know me?"

"Oh, everyone knows you. My roommate has had your classes. Plus, I see you here all the time."

"So if everyone knows me -- you being included in this "everyone" -- can't you save me a trip?"

"Sorry." She seemed genuinely apologetic. "That's the new policy."

I walked back to my office, got my I.D., and returned to the gym."

"Hi, Dr. Ivers. Thanks! Have a nice day!"

* * * * * * * * * *

I don't believe a word of Larry Craig's "I'm not gay" speech. It is precisely because he is a committed "family values" United States senator that I believe he's lying, and that it is only a matter of time before further evidence surfaces that makes it clear that he's visiting his last restroom in Minneapolis, Union Station in D.C., or anywhere else in search of sexual encounters he so earnestly believes consensual adults should not have in the privacy of their own homes. But the willingness of Craig to so eagerly abuse his position of power, a trait that is consistent with public officialdom in Washington regardless of political affiliation, doesn't seem to attract the attention of the Washington political-media establishment. Live here long enough and you'll realize that the sex factor will always trump the accountability factor. Soliciting for sex in public bathrooms certainly is inappropriate conduct. But so is attempting to bully a police officer who, given the choice, would prefer not to arrest a United States senator for attempting to have sex with him.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Zeebop in downtown Bethesda

Electric Zeebop will be playing at California Tortilla in downtown Bethesda this Thursday, August 30th, from 6-8 p.m. We'll play there again on Thursday, September 6th, from 6-8 p.m. Playing with me will be the sublime and smooth guitarists Mark Caruso and Mark Kowal and bassist-extraordinaire Justin Parrott.


California Tortilla is located at 4862 Cordell Ave., across from Grapeseed and next to Night Dreams -- true one-stop shopping. Come out and enjoy what's left of summer.

Learn more about Zeebop by visiting us here.

If Michael Vick

. . . was a 6th grade public school teacher in Newport News

. . . worked on the loading dock at Circuit City

. . . worked for the Virginia Department of Parks and Recreation

. . . was an assistant night manager at Arby's

. . . was a college professor at William & Mary

. . . was anything other than a $130 million quarterback who played professional football for the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL, would any columnist in the country, save for perhaps a local reporter writing a metro-type piece, have written a single word about his involvement in a dog fighting ring? Would the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP have come running to his defense, first asking the public not to "judge" Vick until he had his day in court and then saying that Vick should be allowed to play for the Falcons again after he finishes his jail term?

Try this: substitute "Home Depot" for "Atlanta Falcons" when you read CNN's account of Michael Vick's press conference this afternoon at which he admitted his guilt and "accepted full responsibility" for his actions. I did, and here's what I got:

"We cannot tell you today that Michael is cut from [Home Depot]. Cutting him may feel better emotionally for us and for many of our [customers], but it's not in the long-term best interests of [Home Depot]," (Atlanta Falcons president Arthur) Blank said.

Arthur Blank made his gazillions building Home Depot. Been in Home Depot lately? Found anyone there who really deserves to wear the apron, "I help in all departments?"

I haven't. I've found people unable to help in any department -- in English, in Spanish and in English and Spanish. I am more than happy to go to my neighborhood hardware store and pay much more to have people tell me, in English, in Spanish and in English and Spanish, where I can find molly bolts and screws.

I'm guessing that if Michael Vick worked in the plumbing section of Home Depot, and had just plead guilty to his involvement in dog fighting, Blank would not have issued the statement he did today. Then again, I suppose Home Depot's future isn't wrapped up in a $8.00 an hour floor employee.

If there is anything more twisted that a 27 year-old multi-millionaire throwing his professional life away to satisfy some strange urge to fight dogs and then kill them if they under-perform, it is the exceptions that American society is willing to make for amateur and professional athletes from the rules that apply to the rank-and-file.

But there is an upside to the Vick fiasco: "Through this situation I have found Jesus."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Charlie Parker

After Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker is the most important American musician of the 20th century. Armstrong and Parker were not just jazz musicians, although jazz was the medium through which they expressed their creative genius. Armstrong introduced improvisation to American music, altering forever how musicians heard and played music built on the song form. Dissatisfied with the standard chord changes and improvisation in big-band era and swing jazz, Parker introduced bebop to the jazz lexicon, a style of playing that emphasized improvisation over harmonic structure rather than melody. Although Coleman Hawkins, the most important tenor saxophonist in jazz before John Coltrane's musical ascent in the late 1950s, had begun experimenting with improvisation and harmonic variation in the late 1930s, Parker took this idea a quantum leap forward in the early 1940s, playing at speeds unencumbered by technical limitations in ways that no one had ever seen. Parker found musical soulmates in the brilliant musicianship of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, Max Roach and a teenage trumpeter named Miles Davis. But Parker was the leader of the bebop movement and all the other boppers knew it. To this day, Parker's blistering improvisation over a staggering array of chord changes in "Cherokee" remains the bar for all aspiring jazz musicians. Think of it as the password that allows horn players to play with the big boys and girls.

Parker's unmatched brilliance as an improviser sometimes obscures his gifts as a composer, particularly of heads and melodies from such remarkable tunes such as "Koko," "Ornithology," "Confirmation," "Moose the Hooche," "Donna Lee," "Embraceable You," "Scrapple From the Apple," and "Yardbird Suite," which my jazz trio played tonight, and left me wondering, "Do we really have the right to play this music?"

This weekend, New York will host the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival for the fifteenth annual year. The New York Times has a full description of this weekend's events, as well as sidebars on where to find Parker's best recordings, books and biographies about Parker and an essay on his rise to the musical heights and his tragic fall less than seven years after he made his first recording.

Still, fifty years after his death, Bird lives.

Guns, yes; sex toys, no

I visited Alabama once, on June 24th, 1979, to see Yes, the greatest progressive rock band ever, with three friends of mine. Growing up in Atlanta, I was used to seeing signs for Birmingham when I traveled on I-20 West, which was the highway we took to go to Six Flags Over Georgia or, when I went to work with my dad, that went to the West End Mall. Until that day, I had never ventured further west than the exit for Six Flags. A had a friend who moved to Atlanta from Birmingham when we were both around 15. After we planned our trip to Birmingham, I asked my friend, Patrick, whose parents would not him go with us because we lacked a "proper Christian bearing," how we would know when we were getting close to downtown Birmingham.

"You'll smell the paper factories," he said. "And you will stop seeing signs for fireworks and gun shops."

Patrick's older brother, by the way, who was a young adult leader in his family's church youth group, was also our neighborhood pot dealer who maintained a hydroponic marijuana garden in the family attic.

Both bits of travel information turned out to be true. Birmingham is the foulest smelling city I have ever visited -- and I have been to Detroit -- and the opportunity to purchase fireworks and weapons of all sorts was available to us at almost every exit off I-20 West once we crossed the Alabama state line. We certainly took advantage of the fireworks stands, acquiring an arsenal that would last my friends and I through the entire summer. Those were the days when you could buy M80s without signing any forms or waiting five days. Plumbing failures in the DeKalb County School System attributed to old pipes and financial woes to repair them were the result of fireworks experiments conducted on-site courtesy of the State of Alabama's liberal fireworks policies.

You can still buy all the fireworks you want in Alabama. And you can get your hands on guns of all sorts, and probably flame throwers and rocket propelled grenade launchers -- necessary items on any hunter's deer season checklist. But you cannot, absolutely cannot, purchase "sex toys" or any other "marital aids" in this Confederate monument to good morals and upstanding attitudes towards sex.

In the late 1998, Alabama banned the sale of vibrators and any other object designed to stimulate "human genitals" as part of the Alabama Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act. On two separate occasions since then, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the Alabama law on grounds that Americans have no fundamental right to sexual privacy under the United States Constitution. Sheri Williams, an Alabama sex-store operator, has been the party to both lawsuits and has been represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. In February 2005, the Supreme Court turned down a request to hear an appeal on the Alabama vibrator ban, but Williams and the ACLU, just two weeks ago, appealed to the Court again to take up the cause of free-thinking Alabamans everywhere.

You can still buy guns, fireworks, Pecan logs, Confederate memorabilia and Bear Bryant statutes pretty much anywhere you turn around in Alabama. But for toys designed to stimulate human genitals you'll have to get on I-20 East and head to Georgia.

Did you hear that? You will have to head to Georgia to buy a vibrator.

So much for the old warning to "lock up your wives and daughters" when the Union soldiers come to town. Alabama women might do better to lock their top drawers when the police come calling.

There is some good news, though. Alabama is one of the nation's top 5 marijuana producing states. In 2006, Alabama's marijuana crops were valued at $569 million, compared to $198 million for cotton and $120 for hay. And since only 8% of the Alabama's marijuana is confiscated or eradicated each year, there is plenty to go around for everyone.

Perhaps a bong hit or two might help the parents of Alabamans cope with the news that their teen-age girls have the 10th highest birth-rates in the country.

If I were a smart, enterprising gun dealer in Alabama, I'd start selling human genital stimulants that looked liked weapons. First things first, though. If Alabamans want to drive down those birth rates, let's help them confiscate those vibrators now, before another teen-age girl gets pregnant.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Perfect parenting by people who are neither perfect nor parents

Just over thirteen years have passed since 1994 B.C. (the era Before Children, not Before Christ), and, to invoke the most overused cliche from the Parenting Handbook -- only because it is the most accurate one -- I have a hard time remembering what like was life before my first child was born. I seem to remember things like dinners out with my wife, responses like, "Sure, we make it over Saturday for dinner," or "Yes, we saw 'Good Fellas' the day it came out," and "I'm free to play golf on Sunday morning," if I received a social invitation of some sort or simply engaged in an adult-level conversation, an occasional weekend nap, no knowledge whatsoever of who Richard Scarry, Eric Carle, Sandra Boynton or the insidious bastard who created Bananas in Pajamas were and the relative advantages of velcro vs. clear-tape fasteners on disposable diapers.

Thirteen years and thirteen days later, I am now the object of scorn, ridicule, taunting, derision and mocking by my two adorable and precocious children, who I also embarrass on a regular basis. By the end of the last school year, my eight-and-a-half year old teenage daughter informed me that I was no "longer allowed" to walk her past the crosswalk to her school because my "outfits" embarrassed her in front of "everyone." Until I "created a look that was fashionable" I was to stay on my side of the street.

At least Bethesda's hybrid answer to Hannah Montana and Raven allows me to eat with her when we dine at one of our neighborhood's upscale restaurants, like California Tortilla or Silver Diner. Not so my son, who, after I take him and his posse to lunch after carting him around in MY car to and from activities IN WHICH I DO NOT PARTICIPATE BUT PAY FOR, first looks to see where I put down my plastic fork and paper cup before picking a table out on the other side of the restaurant. This is after I have already explained to the posse why we are not stopping at Hooter's even though "his" friend Lowell has a V.I.P. card. Funny, though . . . despite this independence of thought on my son's part there is no corollary interest in any financial independence. This gives me some degree of control over where we eat and what we order and, to some extent, my son's public behavior. For now, I also retain an important weapon in the parenting arsenal of newly minted teenagers -- the threat to have him order off the children's menu. Want to see a thirteen year-old boy sit up straight and behave? Just tell the server, "We'd like another children's menu for our son."

Problem solved.

Like many expectant parents, my wife and I thought we would be able to reason with our children to resolve disputes or to encourage them to conform to the norms of what we believed were the hallmarks of a civilized society. We were going to become the kind of parents that the authors of books on how to be good parents write about when they provide examples of how to deal with your children. Good parents do not threaten their children with military school or one-way bus tickets to far-away destinations that may or may not have indoor plumbing or any meaningful social structure. Good parents do not ground their children for life, a punishment doled out only because the state's electric chair currently does not conform to the Supreme Court's requirements under the Eighth Amendment, or remove them from a shopping mall by the short hairs because they resisted several reasonable requests to stop hurling foreign objects on the law-abiding citizens attempting to go peacefully about their mindless consumption. Good parents get down to eye-level with their children and reason with them. Like this:

"Bedford, mommy understands that you're upset that she's elected not to buy you Captain Crunch with Crunchberries, and that's why you opened a box and started eating them without asking mommy. And mommy also understands why you dumped them all over the floor when she told you to put the box down. Mommy understands these things because she was a little girl once and wanted cereals that her mommy wouldn't let her eat. Mommy's mommy was a control freak and wouldn't let mommy do lots of things, which is why mommy is not letting you have Crunchberries. How about if mommy lets you have some fresh grapes if you'll put the Crunchberries down? Bedford, you know mommy loves you and that's why we're setting limits on what kind of cereal we can buy, right?"

Every time I witness a scene like this is a grocery store, I want to get down at eye-level with Bedford and mommy and say this:

"Bedford, here's what's going to happen. You're going to pick up every goddamn one of those Crunchberries and put them back in the box. And daddy is going to pay for them. Then you're going to the store manager and you're going to apologize for dumping the Crunchberries all over the floor. You're then going to ask for a broom to sweep up any of the mess you left. When daddy gets home, he going's to take the $3.79 you cost him out of your bank, the money that mommy and daddy gave you anyway, and pay daddy back. After that, Bedford, you're going to fix daddy a nice, stiff drink because you've shot his nerves after an afternoon of watching you terrorize everyone with whom you've come into contact, including the 17 year-old waitress who quit in the middle of her shift at Ruby Tuesday's rather than come back and ask us if there was anything thing else she could get us."

But since Bedford is only 2 or 3, he isn't going to listen to reasonable mommy or threatening daddy. Bedford will do what Bedford wants because he is 2 or 3, realizing, deep, deep in his subconscious or collective unconscious (that stuff still confuses me), that there is absolutely nothing that mommy or daddy can do about it. One day, they'll make the turn from, "well, Caitlin is just so easy when we go out. We can go anywhere with her," to "Caitlin, mommy has hair clippers in her purse and will give you that haircut you don't want right now if you don't get your shit together and behave." New parents understandably want to believe that they will not repeat the "mistakes" of their parents or threaten periodically to throw the contents of their children's bedrooms out the window. I have had plenty of young parents tell me, "I'll never do this or that," or "I hope my children never move more than a block from me and call me twice a day."

They'll change.

Believe me, they will.

Fortunately for people like me, there are entire armies of parenting experts available to offer advice and support for the difficult moments between parents and children, or between children and teachers, or children and coaches, or children and law enforcement authorities, or children and roadside fireworks dealers. Unsolicited assistance is always available from concerned members of community who are not parents on topics ranging from not hiding inside the circular clothing racks in department stores to the more general issues in child-rearing.

Just last week, during our annual prison sentence on the beach, a 30ish woman was kind enough to ask me if I had applied sunscreen to my daughter.

"Thank you for asking," I said. "But, yes, I have."

"What SPF? She has fair skin, like you."

"100. I mail-order for it. You can't get it in stores. Two years ago, our daughter suffered third-degree burns because my wife only applied SPF 30. Even though she was wearing a one-piece suit that covered most of her body, the sun was so strong that she burned even through the bathing suit. I found out about this mail-order place that specializes in SPF sunscreens for really, really sensitive skin. 100 even protects you against moonburn."

"Moonburn?"

"Have you seen how bright the moon gets on the beach? We don't take any chances, not since the ER doctors had me arrested for child endangerment after the sunburn incident."

This perked her interest.

"You were arrested for your daughter's sunburn?" She seemed almost triumphant in hearing that my "negligence" had resulted in a near-trip to the slammer. "I bet your wife was furious."

"My wife applied the 30. I had argued for 48 and, after a while, I just said, 'To hell with it. Go ahead and let her burn. You know the doctors will blame me anyway because they always blame the father for any scrape, burn or severed limb."

"So why did you get arrested?" By now she was sitting up, and had even taken the energy to flick the ashes off her Marlboro Light and, at 10.30 a.m. take another pull off her Miller Lite.

"Because my wife had just finished her parole term and an arrest would have meant going back, and I wasn't going to let that happen again. A woman's prison is no place for a mother to raise a child. Since I've been clean for five years, nothing really can happen to me."

"By the way," I continued, "what sunscreen do you apply to your kids? I'm always looking for advice on how to be a better parent. Those prison education programs are worthless. They're just designed to kill time and justify the budget. You don't even want to know what goes on inside those walls."

"I don't have kids," she said. "But I did work as a camp counselor in high school and college, so I have lots of experience with sunscreen."

Sunscreen. I remember all those important lectures in our Lamaze classes on the proper application of sunscreen. I remember even better those long, reflective conversations with our rabbi as we discussed the obstacles that modernity posed for raising a Jewish child.

"Never forget," he said, looking up from the Torah, "the proper application of sunscreen. Jewish skin is very sensitive. God will judge you on this. And your High Holiday brisket."

Or do I?

It was time to end this conversation. "I wish I had a camp counselor like you. Our counselors taught us things like how to go to the bathroom outdoors and light your farts on fire. They didn't teach us how to smoke and drink, especially before noon. Thanks for the help."

And I turned around to find my daughter walking towards the ocean, a full 50 feet away from the water, completely unsupervised. Luckily, I intervened in time, saving me the ordeal of having to explain to the camp counselor how we had managed only last year to survive a near-fatal shark attack because daddy had failed to apply the appropriate amount of shark repellent on his children.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Zeebop on the Web

Zeebop, the jazz group I lead, now has a website. Click on ZeebopMusic.com -- you'll find set lists for the acoustic and electric versions of the band, sound clips and contact information that you are free to pass on to interested parties. We have several private events coming up over the next several weeks and one open show from 7-9 p.m. at American University on September 12th that will feature the electric funk and blues version of Zeebop. Check here for regular updates on shows around town.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Summer break

PoliScope will be on vacation from Saturday, August 11th until Monday, August 20th.

After almost one year on-line, PoliScope has received almost 25,000 visits.

Thanks for reading!



Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Game of shadows: the final word on steroids

So much of the discussion around Barry Bonds's chase and ultimate eclipse of Hank Aaron's home run record has included, of course, his alleged use of steroids to fuel the power surge that fueled his offensive production after 1998. Poking around the statistics on Aaron, Ruth, Bonds for the posts I wrote on Bonds, I'd forgotten about the meticulous reporting of San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in their book, Game of Shadows, on BALCO, the Bay Area "co-operative" that stands accused of providing steroids to Bonds. Sports Illustrated published an extensive excerpt of the Wada and Williams book in March 2006 that is so damning in its presentation of documentary evidence and interviews with persons close to BALCO and Bonds that it will leave you shaken, if not convinced, of his steroid use.

Read it and come to your own conclusion.

By the way, never forget that Bonds was able to do what he did because Major League Baseball let him. That includes not just Don Fehr, the players' union head, but Bud Selig and San Francisco Giants ownership, who knew a meal ticket when it saw one.

And that's my final comment on Barry Bonds.

Notes on a failed presidency

Three weeks after Bill Kristol wrote -- even by his standards -- his most laughable defense yet of George Bush's presidency, the September Atlantic offers three articles on presidential politics that put the Decider and his dysfunctional crew of armchair warriors, incompetents, hypocrites and liars in the proper perspective. Joshua Green has an article on Karl Rove's failure to secure the permanent Republican majority by succumbing to the permanent politics of fear. Matthew Scully, a former Bush speechwriter, offers a soft memoir on the Decider's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, whose moralizing, self-reverent meanderings are now published twice a week on the Washington Post's editorial page. Ross Douthat wonders if Democrats can seize the moment to win the 2008 presidential election.

That Karl Rove failed does not surprise me. That Michael Gerson doesn't translate to the moral citizen-soldier he expects everyone else to be does not surprise me. But I still am too reluctant to predict a Democratic win in 2008. The Democratic majority's decision to cave on the eavesdropping legislation earlier this week was a stunning act of cowardice. Every time the Republicans play the terrorism and fear-mongering cards, the Democrats react like scared dogs. That is not the way to win a presidential election. The "toughness" issue is not going to disappear a year and a half from now. The Democrats need to get their bearings right on this if they want to take the White House.

Help! I have a teenager my house

I have a teenager in my house. And not just any teenager. This is Max Ivers we're talking about.

It seems like only yesterday that he was picking out Tonka toys, Legos and Hot Wheels for his birthday (and mine, too. Always very thoughtful, he made sure I had just the Hot Wheels I wanted for my birthday . . . and Father's Day . . . and all the other Hallmark holidays).

Now, he wants a gun and a car -- real ones.

We'll figure it all out -- minus the gun.

I love you, Max. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have a son so fantastic.

Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Comparing athletes across time -- don't bother

Deep breath . . . Barry Bonds now holds the MLB record for most career home runs with 756. If he retires after this season, Bonds will end up with somewhere around 763-766 career home runs. Set aside, for a moment, the steroid issue and whether you believe Bonds came by his record honestly. Parallel to the steroid issue during the Bonds home run chase has been the question of whether his possession of the record makes him a better hitter than Hank Aaron. A question like this, just like the question of whether Babe Ruth would have hit more or less home runs if he played during Aaron or Bonds time, makes for a good beginning to a bar stool debate. But anyone who believes that comparing statistics can offer an authoritative answer to how players compare against each other across generations is deluding themselves. For fans who take their data points from Bill James, there is an unwavering belief that the mountains and mountains of statistics that MLB collects -- not to mention the historical societies unaffiliated with the professional game -- do answer the "Is Barry Bonds better than Hank Aaron?"-type questions. For fans who never miss Roger Angell's comments on baseball in the New Yorker and own all his books -- fans like me -- statistics are merely a reference point in a discussion -- or depending how long one has been sitting on the bar stool -- about whether Ty Cobb was a better hitter than Tony Gwynn.

In short, the "who was or is better than who" argument is fun. Ultimately, though, you can't get a definitive answer. And statistics don't offer much help.

Consider this: only one major league player who played after 1980 has a career batting average that places him in the Top 20 of all-time. Give up? Tony Gwynn. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig all have lifetime averages better than Gwynn. But so do Jesse Burkett and Billy Hamilton and many more players you've never heard of. Gwynn is 17th. Then it drops to Wade Boggs (31st) and Rod Carew (32nd). No other player who played after 1970 is in the Top 50. Three current players, Todd Helton (24th), Ichiro Suzuki (29th) and Valdimir Guerrero (37th) are in the Top 50. That's it: 43 of the 50 highest batting averages in MLB history belong to players who stop playing before 1965. Only one played past 1960 -- Ted Williams.

Does this that hitters aren't as good as they once were? No. Does it mean that pitchers are better than they once were? Not necessarily, but that gets closer to the truth than simply downplaying the modern hitter. Modern hitters face pitchers who, on average, throw the ball harder than their contemporaries. The invention of the modern "closer" has certainly had an impact on batting averages over the last generation. More than that, though, major league players on average are much better athletes than the men who played with Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Greenberg, Lou Gehrig and, of course, Babe Ruth. Steroids or no steroids, the modern athlete has benefited from numerous improvements in conditioning, nutrition, equipment, training and coaching. Can Barry Bonds turn on a fastball any better than Aaron or Ruth in their primes? I don't know since I didn't see Ruth play. I saw Aaron play a lot, and although I was pretty young when I did I still remember those quick wrists. Aaron's homers came from his wrists; Bonds's homers come through perfect timing and the physics of motion -- he puts his whole body into it. Their swings, both sights to behold, could not be more different.

Statisticians point to the fact that Ruth hit home runs more often than Aaron or Bonds -- 1 per 11.7 at bats vs. Bonds's 12.9, making them second and third behind Mark McGwire, the disgraced former Oakland-St. Louis slugger who all but admitted his steroid use in the late 90s and early 2000s before Congress two years ago. Aaron is way down the list -- 36th 1 per 16.1 at bats. From 1990-1991, Barry Bonds averaged 1 home run per 16.1 at bats; from 1999-2006, he averaged 1 per 8.9 at bats, the highest ratio ever. The dividing line is, according to the best book on Barry Bonds's involvement with steroids, the year that Bonds began his program of now-illegal steroid use. He was 35 years old. No player in baseball other than Bonds has ever had a more productive career after that age.

The conclusion from all this? McGwire, Ruth and Bonds are the three purest home run hitters in baseball history, statistically anyway. They rank one, two, three career-wise in home runs per at bat. Who's the better hitter? Probably Bonds, at .298 lifetime . . . yep, better than Ruth, at .342. But is he better than Aaron, who finished at .305 lifetime, is the all-time leader in RBI (and leads Bonds by approximately 300 RBI, a record Bonds will not break; the closest active player to Aaron's RBI totals after Bonds is Ken Griffey, Jr., who trails Aaron by about 650 RBI)? That's a close call. Having seen them both in their primes, my own feeling is that, as hitters, Aaron was the more natural, gifted hitter, and Bonds, while certainly possessing stupendous talent, worked very, very hard to become the hitter he did. Steroids or not steroids, you still have to turn on a major league fastball and react in split-seconds to hit breaking balls.

Where does Babe Ruth fall in this discussion? I'm not sure. Let's make something clear before continuing the discussion: Babe Ruth was a great baseball player, not just a great hitter. He won 89 games while losing only 46 with an ERA of 2.18 in the five seasons he worked as a starting pitcher, and had 107 complete games (comparison: Tom Glavine has 29 career complete games; Greg Maddux 57 -- both are 300 game winners). In 1927, the year Ruth hit 60 home runs, he out-homered every other team in the American league. Neither Bonds nor Aaron ever out-homered another entire team. Babe Ruth was an anomaly during his prime years -- no one approached his power statistics. Before Ruth, baseball was a hit and run game played with a dead ball. Ruth changed everything. He brought power to the game and without a doubt invented the home run.

So why can't we conclude that he is the greatest hitter ever? For me, the most important qualifier is the most obvious: Ruth did not play against the best players of his era. Racial segregation severely limited the talent pool available to major league teams. Ruth did not bat against the best pitchers, compete against the best hitters, watch base hits taken away by superior fielders or find himself handcuffed by managers unwilling to pitch to him. The contemporary defense of Ruth's accomplishments is that he played before expansion when it was harder to get a major league job. That's true and it's not. For white players, perhaps. For non-white players, the issue was moot. Moreover, racial discrimination was not just limited to African-American athletes. Latin players were forbidden from entering the American and National Leagues until after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. And really, before the 1980s, Latin players were not actively recruited in their home countries like they are now. The capacity of MLB to identify and recruit the best ball players is galaxies beyond what it was just twenty years ago, much less in Ruth's time. In Ruth's time, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols -- just like Aaron, Bonds, Griffey, Jr., Frank Robinson and Willie Mays just for starters, wouldn't have gotten a look. Seven of the Top 10 all-time home run leaders are African-American or Latino. What would baseball's all-time leaders look like if the game had been open to everyone?

Ty Cobb? Better than Ichiro Suzuki? Who knows?

Second, baseball is a much more specialized game now than it was in Ruth's time, or even during Aaron's prime. Neither faced the modern closer, a development that cannot be underestimated. Would Ruth have hit as many home runs if he had to face Mariano Rivera, Eric Gagne, Dennis Eckersley, John Smoltz, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner or Goose Gossage in their primes? Had he had to bat against starters like Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, Dwight Gooden, Pedro Martinez or Dave Stewart during their command years? No one knows.

Pitching statistics are not the issue here, but consider this: there isn't a single pitcher whose career ended after 1972 who is in the Top 100 in career ERA (minimum 1000 innings pitched, so that eliminates most closers). Bob Gibson? 139th, with an ERA of 2.91 (that's including the 1.12 ERA from 1968). Greg Maddux? 197th. Roger Clemens? 208th. The statistics are not on my side, but I'm pretty comfortable going on record saying that Gibson is not the 139th best starting pitcher of all-time, just like I'm not willing to concede that Walter Johnson is 197 spots better than Clemens.

And just who is that pitcher who retired in 1972 with membership in the Top 100 (44th, to be exact)? Hoyt Wilhelm, the man who introduced the knuckleball to major league baseball. Ruth never had to hit one of those, much less sliders, split-fingers, close-circle change-ups and so on. On the other hand, Ruth played his games during the day, when it is harder to see the ball. The modern bangers have all played the majority -- the overwhelming majority -- of their games at night.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I would have argued with all my force that an athlete from one generation is better or worse than an athlete from another generation. I always argued for Hank Aaron because, growing up in Atlanta, I just loved the guy. I even met him once, when he came into my father's store to buy some clothes. He was not at all a pretentious man -- very quiet and soft-spoken, and didn't expect any special treatment, although, of course, he got it. The only thing that threw me when I met Aaron was that he smoked cigarettes -- at least then. But a lot of ballplayers did in those days. So it didn't matter than Aaron, statistically, was better or worse than Ruth or Mays or Mantle or anyone else. What mattered is that I thought he was the best, just like an entire generation of New Yorkers will never agree on whether Mantle or Joe DiMaggio was the greatest Yankees center fielder ever, or whether Willie Mays was better than both of them. What matters is that you loved them because of how they played the game. Comparing their statistics across time to measure their "objective" accomplishments in a game that has evolved in talent, recruitment, development and so many other ways just isn't possible.

Steroids or no steroids, Barry Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players ever. The 500-plus steals, the eight Gold Gloves, the slugging percentage . . . plus the fact that he might just be the most pitched-around batter ever . . . you can't take any of these accomplishments away from him. Can you take some of his home runs away if you take away the steroids? Absolutely, because those numbers are such an aberration in his career and in the trajectory of the "normal"curve of athletic prowess in baseball that there is little else available to explain his home run production after 1998. But don't forget that Aaron hit 22 additional home runs in the American League, where he played the final two years of his career as a designated hitter. Bonds has never had that luxury. And Ruth only played 154 game seasons, so that limited his home run production. But he also hit how many home runs to that 295 foot right-field porch in old Yankee Stadium? That more than offsets Aaron's home runs in Atlanta Stadium, nicknamed the "Launching Pad" during its reign from 1966-1997 before it was demolished to make way for Turner Field.

Enough. Hopefully, you get the point. Enjoy greatness for what it is. Argue about whether Bonds would have hit more or fewer home runs had he not used steroids. Have fun comparing his swing against Aaron's or Ruth's or Mays's. Debate who was a more complete player, or what Ken Griffey, Jr. might have accomplished had he not lost so many games to injuries during his prime years. But leave the Ruth v. Aaron and Aaron v. Bonds comparisons at the door. As long as the game is played by people and not computers, no one will ever know who is better than whom. In the end, baseball is a game of the heart, not the mind.

All statistics taken from Baseball Reference.

P.S. Bobby Jones with an oversized driver, graphite shafts and titanium heads? Tiger Woods with hickory sticks? Discuss.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Who hasn't worn what uniform?

From time to time I check out what the National Review on-line has to say about the world, not so much because I agree with anything its writers have to say, but because it is a journal that carries weight in the political world. Plus, you need to know what others are thinking, agree with them or not.

Here's a strange comment, though, even by NRO standards. Sometimes you just have to wonder why editors let comments like this slip through, unless it is to illustrate the law of unintended irony.

In a piece on how well the United States is doing in Iraq -- yes, really -- a blogger named W. Thomas Smith, Jr. writes: "[T]he majority of the most vocal of the war critics have never even worn the uniform of our country."

Huh?

Not a single member of George W. Bush's civilian war cabinet served in the military, save the departed Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld (who turned out to be the Robert McNamara of his generation). Iraq war cheerleaders such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, the National Review editorial board and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard never served either. And the list goes on and on.

Lack of self-awareness does have its limits.

Converting Homosexuals

About two months ago, I noticed that one of my neighbors from up the street had put their house on the market. Although my relationship with the couple who lived in this nicely but not too nicely maintained old colonial was limited to friendly hellos when they walked their dogs past my house, punctuated on occasion with mutual admiration for each other's bumper sticker collection -- they were first on the block to get the "1.20.09 New America" sticker and always led the way in their lack of public admiration for our 43rd president -- we always made time to inquire into each other's lives in that nice, semi-artificial yet sincere suburban manner that makes life in Bethesda so rewarding. So when I bumped into them recently as they were taking their dogs out for their evening constitutional, I took a minute to ask why they were moving.

"The commute was killing me," said Cheryl. "I'm going to stay over at Maryland, and it looks like Mary's done with the Loyola job. So we decided to take advantage of the market and move over towards College Park."

"It's my fault," said Mary. "But in a good way."

I knew Cheryl and Mary were both professors because we had traded professional biographies one morning while waiting to vote at my son's middle school. Cheryl had mentioned that she had taught at Maryland a long time, going back for her Ph.D after her son, from "a previous life," started elementary school. I figured out the rest: Cheryl came out during her first marriage, gotten divorced and met Mary. This must have happened a long time ago because Cheryl and Mary have been running and walking past my house and taking their dog out to shit in my yard (they scoop; no problem) for at least the last 10 years. Until this morning, I thought Cheryl and Mary were just another nice couple who lived in a nice house up the street in our nice neighborhood, which, to the best of my knowledge, is a relatively peaceful place . . . if you discount the summer block parties which can sometimes run for up the three hours in the afternoon before we all decide to pack it in and take a nap.

Now I know the truth. They came to our peaceful community, knowing full well that most of their neighbors were young parents and young parents-to-be who had chosen this neighborhood specifically so they could send their kids to the public schools and have relatively easy access to the Metro, downtown Bethesda, the Beltway and northwest D.C. That, and the fact that it is less unaffordable than many surrounding neighborhoods that also offer good schools, at least 14 kinds of balsamic vinegar at the nearby Balducci's and Whole Foods and a mercifully short commute to Montgomery Mall, where my better heeled neighbors can load up on the back-to-school Lacoste shirts, Ugg boots, plaid pants, sneakers with Ralph Lauren logos on them and the rest of the best that Nordstrom, J. Crew and Abercrombie have to offer the 12 year-old professional in training. What should have been obvious to me during all those years of pleasant conversation stung me with the force of one of Barry Bonds's syringes.

Cheryl and Mary were never the nice, considerate and personable neighbors they appeared to be. The whole act was a ruse, a scam . . . one big con worthy of a Lifetime Channel movie. This entire time, they were . . . . were secret lesbian agents out to convert innocent heterosexual children to the deep, dark and twisted world that is gay America.

Thank the Lord, then, for Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, or PFOX, a Fairfax County, Virginia-based organization that advocates "reparative therapy" and other "faith-based" methods to convert homosexuals back to heterosexuality. In a world consumed by violence, hatred, poverty, disease, ancient tribal bloodbaths, racism, sexism and genocide, it is about high-time that someone set out to address the unfortunate consequences of what happens when young men and women follow their hearts to find their personal sexuality. And it is doubly important to reach these confused souls when they are teenagers. Of all the teen-age rites of passages, nothing is easier than coming to grips with one's homosexuality, right? Far from carrying a social stigma or personal psychological challenges, coming out as a teenager is probably the best way to ingratiate one's self with the "cool crowd," particularly in a hyper-competitive, sports-driven culture like that found in metropolitan Washington, D.C. Good for PFOX for taking its messages to our region's high schools and middle-schools. And boo on local school authorities for having the nerve to resist their efforts to distribute their materials in public schools. And for more information you can visit Exodus International, where you can read moving testimonials from individuals who were saved from the devil's path by good-hearted heterosexuals doing the Lord's work.

This is just one front in the all-important battle to make the world a more heterosexual, sin-free place. Next, it's time to take down those billboards in gay neighborhoods advertising such horrible slogans as, "Straight? Unhappy?" or "Is Someone You Love Straight? Let Us Help You!" Oh, wait . . . there don't seem to be any. I guess if they want help they'll ask for it.

Meanwhile, College Park, watch out for Cheryl and Mary. They're not who you think they are.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Tom is Terrific; Barry is a Bum

Ah, yes . . . finally! Tom Glavine, the most consistently excellent left-handed pitcher since Warren Spahn, won his 300th game tonight, as the Mets beat the Cubs, 8-3. He went 6 1/3 innings in a vintage Glavine performance: 6 hits, 2 runs, 1 K, 1 BB and threw just around 100 pitches. And let's not forget a base hit in the second inning to knock in game's first run and a perfect sacrifice bunt in 6th inning to advance Lastings Milledge to second, who then scored on lead-off batter Jose Reyes's single to center field. From the first inning, which has always been Glavine's Achilles' heel, the master craftsman was in control. I watched the game from start to finish, the only time I've watched a ball game in its entirety this year. Normally, my schedule doesn't allow three hours for baseball. Tonight was different, though. I pulled for Glavine to make it when he broke in with the Braves in 1988. He roughed it out those first few years before the Braves turned it around in 1991. For almost a decade, Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz formed the best 1, 2, 3 front of the rotation in major league baseball. He won Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, 2-1, for the Atlanta Braves, and gave the Braves 14 great seasons. I hope Glavine remembers that when he goes into the Hall of Fame, and chooses to wear a Braves cap.

The Wrigley Field partisans gave Glavine a standing ovation when Willie Randolph took him out after he gave up a base hit with one out in the Cubs' 7th. Randolph is first-class all the way. He could have taken him out after the 6th, when the Mets were up 5-0. I think he put Glavine back in so he could walk off the field to cheers from an opposing crowd, which is precisely what happened. Cheers went up after Glavine got the final out of the 6th, but they were for Kerry Wood, the Cubs former pitching prodigy who was making his first major league appearance in 14 months. After Billy Wagner sealed Glavine's win in the 9th, Cub fans stayed in their seats and gave Glavine another ovation, waiting for the Mets to complete their post-game handshake so they could extend their collective good wishes to this great pitcher. Tonight, Glavine became just the fifth left-hander to win 300 games and only the 23rd pitcher ever to reach that mark. He will be the last 300 game winner for a while -- maybe ever.

Contrast Glavine's purposeful and graceful march to 300 wins over the course of an 18 year career that has never seen him miss a single scheduled start (653 consecutive starts and counting, a truly remarkable feat, the pitcher's equivalent of Cal Ripken's consecutive game's streak) with the joyless, fraudulent and boorish march by Barry Bonds on Hank Aaron's home run record. Barry hit 755 Saturday afternoon in San Diego, standing and preening at his opposite field home run before applauding himself, blowing kisses to an ambivalent crowd (and, Bonds being Bonds, presumably God) and trotting around the bases. Compare Bonds's self-absorption with Aaron's reaction upon hitting 715 against Al Downing on April 8th, 1974. Aaron connected to left-center field, began an accelerated jog from the batter's box, dropped his bat and continued around the bases, with his head down until he crossed home plate, where he was mobbed by his teammates.

Bonds's teammates and a smattering of San Diego fans cheered, but just as many, if not more, booed him with the remainder indifferent. San Diego players didn't even come off the bench to acknowledge Bonds's home run. Imagine that -- tying the most exalted record in American sports and getting booed by anyone. No one booed Mark McGwire when he broke Roger Maris's single-season home run record. No one booed Alex Rodriguez when he smacked his 500th home run on Saturday. No sports fan boos a player who comes by a record honestly and with some sense of respect for the past. Look at Tiger Woods. He will eclipse Jack Nicklaus's records at some point in his career. Unlike Bonds, Tiger has matured into his role as his sport's greatest player and become a respected and well-liked ambassador of the game. Go to a Washington Capitals practice when they open camp in a month and watch Alex Ovechkin on the ice, with his teammates and with the fans -- you will never see a happier, more exuberant professional athlete.

Bonds will be remembered as a liar, a cheater and a surly bastard, a great player for whom nothing was ever enough. The excuses made on his behalf are just staggering, with the most absurd the charge that rooting against Bonds somehow has racist overtones. Are you kidding me? White America is rooting against an African-American athlete to break a beloved African-American athlete's record? Are these the same people who are cheering on Tiger Woods to break Jack Nicklaus's records in the whitest of all professional sports? I'll tell you this much: if Willie Mays held Hank Aaron's record and Bonds was about to break it, the anger against Bonds would be ten times -- minimum -- what it is now. Bonds was not under the cloud he is now when he eclipsed Mays 95 home runs ago.

Good for you, Tom Glavine. I rooted for you tonight even though the Mets and Braves are locked in a great division race. Barry will get his comeuppance one day. The shame of Barry Bonds is that he would have been one of the greatest players of his generation had he gone about things the right way. I just hope one day Bonds will understand that he and no one else was his own worst enemy. But I doubt it.

Swing and schvitz with Zeebop

Zeebop, the musical collective I lead, will play this Thursday evening, August 9th, from 6.30-7.45 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville. The JCC is located at the corner of Montrose Road and Executive Blvd. We will do an acoustic jazz set featuring tunes by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver; standards drawn from composers such as Richard Rogers and George Gershwin; and Latin-influenced bossa nova tunes. Our set is part of the end-of-the-session celebration for the NEAT (Art) Camp. We want to show artistically-inclined kids that participation in and love of art, regardless of form, can provide a lifetime of enjoyment.


Joining me will be guitarist Mark Caruso and bassist Justin Parrott. Mark and Justin are superb musicians, and play with a dexterity, facility and heart that is obvious to anyone who has had the fortune of seeing them play.

Admission is free. Music will take place in the atrium.

ZEEBOP

Acoustic or Electric
Jazz, Funk, Blues and Beyond . . . Groovin' Together
What You Get Depends On What You Want

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Remembering Michael Brecker

John Coltrane influenced every tenor saxophonist who picked up the instrument after 1955, when he began playing with the first great Miles Davis quintet. No was immune, nor should they have been, from Coltrane's shadow. Not since Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins in quick succession demonstrated the tenor's possibilities had a saxophonist so fundamentally altered the language and approach of the instrument. Charlie Parker was an altoist, having switched from the tenor early in his career after he found the tenor too cumbersome for the be-bop revolution he began with Dizzy Gillespie and Theonious Monk. The tenor was too much for Parker's mind -- the ideas literally poured out of him so fast that he needed a smaller instrument to make the music he wanted.

Since Coltrane passed in 1967, a number of extraordinary players have left their stylistic mark on the tenor's place in jazz. By naming my favorite post-Coltrane tenor players, I run the risk of leaving some musicians out who have made monumental contributions to jazz. But a quick list would include: Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Rouse, Johnny Griffin, Lovano, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis and, most of all, Michael Brecker.

On January 13th, 2007, Michael Brecker passed away after a two year battle with leukemia. After Hawkins, Rollins and Coltrane, Brecker is probably the most influential tenor player in jazz history. He is one of those musicians that, whether saxophonists coming up after him realized it or not, they were channeling his harmonic and melodic innovations into their own vocabularies. Brecker is one of the few tenor saxophonists to absorb Coltrane's "sheets of sound" approach to the instrument without becoming just another skilled imitator. Remarkable for his technical dexterity and panoramic sweep across so many musical genres, Brecker could work in any context and make his solos sound as if he had played that particular style his entire career. He never overwhelmed the music with his ego, preferring to see himself as simply one part of a greater organic whole. Free jazz with Ornette Coleman, straight-ahead hard bop with every single notable jazz leader of the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, fusion (he was a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears, rock (Steely Dan), pop (Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell) -- it didn't matter. Brecker was a stunning composer and soloist. You could hear either gentleness or ferocity in his music, depending on what the music needed. One thing was for certain: you would always hear music straight from the heart.

Brecker's final recording, "Pilgrimage," was released about two months ago, and I have just gotten around to giving it a listen. Brecker's "sidemen" include Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette and John Patitucci, a testament to his musical stature. Hancock and DeJohnette, of course, are two of the most important jazz musicians of the last 40 years; Mehldau might be the most lyrical and expressive pianist in jazz since Hancock; Metheny, well, what is there to say, other than he is among the four or five greatest guitar players in jazz history; and Patitucci, the first-call bassist in the New York jazz scene and, most recently, Wayne Shorter's bassist of choice. Brecker is in marvelous form throughout the disc, and, despite his health, penned all eight compositions. Most recordings, even from the greats, have their highlights no matter how compelling the music. "Pilgrimage" is an aural beauty from start to finish. This is not an "all-star" blowing session. "Pilgrimage" is true ensemble recording, with these world-class artists giving each other support and empathy.

Fortunately, Michael Brecker's legacy will not follow the jazz stereotype that laments the unknown genius who died anonymous and poor, known only to those with whom he played or the small cult that bought his records. Brecker achieved popular and artistic fame throughout his career, and did it without ever compromising his musical integrity. He will be missed, but his life will live on through his recordings. You can learn more about Brecker by visiting the website maintained in his name.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Unoriginal originalism

One day, the Atlanta Braves will have a bullpen that will not self-destruct or populate the nation's orthopedic operating rooms. By that time, perhaps scholars, jurists, journalists and others who think about the Constitution and what it means will end the silly debate over "original intent" -- the Castor Oil of constitutional interpretation.

Doug Kendall and Jim Ryan offer a withering critique of Clarence Thomas's exposition of "originalism" in a recent article in Slate.

Academic corruption or 'teachable moment"?

College administrators are not alone in encouraging professors to pass students who should fail their classes or nudging them to "make things right" so that a student will withdraw a baseless complaint against a professor who refused to allow a student to turn in a paper two or three years late or was caught cheating.

A young teacher in the New York City school system quit his job after the 2006-07 academic year rather than buckle to pressure from the principal of the High School of Arts and Technology in Manhattan to pass a student who had not even come close to meeting the requirements of passing his class in mathematics. The teacher's tale has some uncomfortable parallels to personal experiences of mine (and many of my colleagues) at the university level.

I'm not sure why administrators, parents and even some professors believe that we are doing our students a favor by absolving them of responsibility. At the college level, we already do our students a tremendous disservice by discouraging their independence. We compound the problem by removing the consequences of irresponsible and/or inept academic performance. Is it comforting to know that this starts in high school? Not so much.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Phewww! No terrorism in Minneapolis

The Department of Homeland Security reports that the I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis yesterday, killing eight people and injuring dozens more, does not appear, "at this time" to have a "nexus to terrorism."

We can all breath easier now, knowing that the bridge's collapse was not the work of terrorists. Minneapolis residents can take comfort knowing that terrorists had nothing to do with sabotaging a bridge that had been identified as far back as 1990 as having structural problems, that Minnesota transportation authorities had been informed about the bridge's status and that has recently as 2005 transportation authorities had been told that the bridge was still "deficient." Federal authorities had identified corrosion in the bridge's bearings. Despite these problems, repairs proceeded on a patchwork basis. Because of the heavy traffic across the I-35 bridge, state and local authorities were reluctant to close the bridge down.

In other words, it was good, old American negligence of our public roads and infrastructure that led to the bridge's collapse and the deaths and injuries resulting from it.

The Minnesota Twins, who play in the American League's Central Division, decided to postpone their groundbreaking ceremony on their new $522 million stadium, slated for completion in 2010. Hennepin County, where the Twins play, agreed to kick in $350 million for the stadium, after Bud Selig, the MLB commissioner, threatened to "contract" the Twins after the 2001 season if they didn't leave their current stadium for new, more luxurious confines.

Repairs on the collapsed bridge, which were scheduled for completion in September, were estimated at $2.4 million. The House of Representatives Committee on Public Transportation has just voted to direct $250 to Minnesota to repair any more suspect bridges. More action is necessary before that money ever starts to move.

Just think. For just $272 more, Congress could have built the Twins a new baseball stadium. For just $100 million more it could have matched Hennepin County funds for the stadium.

They'll get this figured out, since Minneapolis is hosting the Republican Presidential Convention in 2008. For now, at least we know it's not terrorism.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Your brain on pot . . . lots and lots and lots of it

Talk about irony. After I got home from getting stitched up at the ER after my bike crash the other night, I channel-surfed a bit to find something soothing to watch, hoping to match the blissful mood that my hospital-supplied narcotic pain medicine had lulled me into, when I came across the latest anti-marijuana public service announcement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. I hadn't seen one of these in a while. The last one I saw was called, "Pete's Couch," which shows a group of stoners sitting on a couch from morning until evening doing absolutely nothing but staring into space. Outside the house, the "smart" friend who turned down the chance to smoke dope and sit on Pete's couch all day frolics in the fields and, of course, attracts the eye of impossibly cute teen-age girls. Message: sit on Pete's couch and your life will pass you by.


The message is certainly reasonable. I don't think it's a good idea for high-schoolers to smoke pot, just like I don't think it's a good idea for them to drink alcohol and just like I don't think it's a good idea for them to abuse drugs of any kind. But just because I don't think it's a good idea for teen-agers to smoke pot and drink doesn't mean they will listen to that advice. I didn't.

Until recently, most of these ads attempting to deter teen-agers from marijuana use went the "smoke pot and you'll have an uncontrollable urge to shoot up heroin and start a crystal meth lab" route. From my childhood, we watched movies that showed stoned hippies attempting to direct traffic without the permission of law enforcement or staring at their hands as they drove their cars off cliffs. Even in 7th and 8th grade my friends and I found these movies laughable. I knew plenty of people who smoked pot through my friends' older brothers and sisters. No one ever did anything like that. No on who had ever smoked dope, whether rarely or fairly often, could take those messages seriously.

"Pete's Couch" intones that people who smoke lots and lots and lots and lots of pot will turn lethargic, dull and uninteresting to other people -- except their fellow stoners, who are too stoned to know how lethargic, dull and uninteresting their friends have become. Guess what? That's actually a good point. Anyone who smokes pot for the better part of their waking hours will fall into that rut. That's not exactly a news flash. But if that message makes kids think twice about smoking pot or, if they choose to smoke pot, not to overdo it, then "Pete's Couch," and the PSA I just saw, "Above the Influence," are serving a much more useful purpose than the old advertisements that attempted to link marijuana use to mass murder. In "Above the Influence," a alien lands his spaceship near a park, where he finds a young man lighting up a joint. His girlfriend sighs, "Not again." The alien turns down a chance to take a hit off the joint, leading the girl to abandon her loser boyfriend for a chance to ride in the alien's spaceship. The ad ends there, but I assume they go off to live on a luxury planet somewhere in far away galaxy where no one smokes pot.

Personally, that ad would not have convinced me to change my mind about anything. Cartoon warnings never did and still don't do it for me. But I get the point: smoking pot will lose you friends.

There are two problems with this ad, though. First, most people who smoke pot hang around other people who smoke pot, especially during their teen and college years. Later on, people who continue to smoke pot into their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s (yep, I know people who smoke pot in all those age ranges) tend to keep a lower profile in their use. They are well aware that American society accepts alcohol as its preferred drug of choice and sees marijuana as some sort of "phase" that you grow out of after college. Fairly upstanding citizens who smoke pot will generally feel out their friends for their tolerance level before breaking out a joint or a pipe. On a deck late at night, people can be a lot less judgmental. Teens, though, are much quicker to label people based on their clothing, interests, musical tastes and the drugs they use. Smoking pot still carries a stigma that the "good" kids -- the ones who only binge drink -- want to avoid.

Second, anti-marijuana ads continue to push the fiction that all pot smokers are stoners. Even today, when I hear someone mention that so-and-so smokes pot, I'll hear a "Ooh, dude, like, wow, man, whatever . . . yeah, that guy's like, whatever, man, I'm so high," as if someone who takes a hit or two off a joint for the same reason another person might have a cocktail or beer is automatically stoned for the next week or so, or incapable of doing anything other than just sitting on a couch, attempting to decode what Roger Waters was really getting at in "The Wall." Almost every adult friend I have 21 and older drinks alcohol. I don't socialize with anyone I would consider an alcoholic. But I do know more than a few people a little too eager to pop a cork, twist open a beer bottle or "fix" a cocktail. I play hockey with guys who spend the whole game talking about their post-game beer. I know people who have recently gotten "into" wine who regale me with stories of tastings and parties going on into the wee hours, with hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of dollars of wine going down the hatch. I've attended baseball and hockey games, golf tournaments and college events where fans just scarf down one beer after another. And why not? They're bombarded with beer advertisements throughout the game. Just three weeks ago, at the Tiger Woods-hosted AT&T Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda (the kind of place that golf announcers refer to as "storied" and "classic" on their broadcasts), you could find an advertisement for Michelob and Cialis on the scoreboard facing the 18th tee. Try explaining to your 12 year-old what "erectile dysfunction" is in the middle of Mike Weir's back swing. Plenty of well-appointed men and women in pink, yellow and green turned-up polo collars were sipping on what, in all likelihood, was not their first beer of the afternoon, basking in the shadows of an advertisement for boner pills. Can advertisements for vibrators at LPGA events be far behind? Imagine that!

Alcohol-related health problems in American adolescents and adults exceed by far those of any other recreational drug. Any drug -- from marijuana to heroin to prescription drugs like Oxycontin -- creates the potential for abuse. But Americans turn a blind eye to the consequences of alcohol abuse and addiction because the consumption of beer, wine and liquor is so deeply embedded in American culture. Awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse are better known to the public now than they were a generation ago. Still, Americans see fewer problems with hammering down shots in a bar, keeping the wine flowing during long dinners or glamorizing cocktails through television and movies (Had anyone ever heard of a Cosmopolitan before "Sex and the City?") or quaffing beers during the Big Game than with someone smoking a little pot occasionally in their house and just taking it easy. At this point in my life I have had my fill of drunks. I'd much rather be around someone a little high and minding his own business than sit through three periods of a hockey game listening to the drunken jerk four rows behind me curse and scream.

Word association time: Martini -- James Bond; Pot -- Cheech and Chong. One is cool, handsome and strong; the other is mocked as stupid, out-of-it and worthless.

Do I believe marijuana should be legal, taxed and regulated by the government? Absolutely. Does that mean I think cocaine, Ecstasy and heroin should be legal? No, I don't, for reasons that rooted more in medical risk and societal danger than a cultural objection. But as long as we continue to draw broad, illogical lines (marijuana and heroin can't be separated) in the legalization debate, we are never going to make progress in reforming our antiquated drug policies. Cigarettes and alcohol are legal. Why? Power and money. Smoking cigarettes has absolutely no health benefit, whereas moderate to light alcohol consumption does. More importantly, the tobacco and alcohol (and pharmaceutical) industries have too many politicians on their payrolls. People with power don't give up power.

Before marijuana became synonymous with the 1960s white counterculture, it was mostly closely associated with the arts, and within the arts, African-American jazz musicians. Louis Armstrong, the greatest jazz musician in American history, smoked marijuana nearly every day of his adult life; Duke Ellington, perhaps the most famous and influential figure in American jazz after Armstrong) smoked dope; so did Dizzy Gillespie (a former State Department "ambassdor" of American culture), Thelonious Monk (who has his own postage stamp), Miles Davis (the most popular figure in the history of modern [post-Ellington] jazz), Charles Mingus and just about every famous black jazz musician who came to the fore of the art form in the 1940s (white musicians, seeking to emulate their black heroes, followed suit). Most Americans assume that marijuana has always been illegal in the United States. Not true. Congress first outlawed marijuana in 1937 -- in fact, Tommy Dorsey, the famous white big-band leader was frequently harassed by government agents for his marijuana use. Dorsey's cause wasn't helped by becoming one of the first popular big band leaders to hire black musicians. That marijuana's criminalization was due in large part to its association with African-American culture and that it was also seen as a "dirty" Mexican drug is not just a conspiracy theory.

The United States government can make all the cutesy, clever and semi-hip advertisements it wants to warn people away from marijuana use. I have no problem with a coherent, logical program of education that encourages teen-agers and young adults to either forgo marijuana and alcohol use or, more realistically, to understand the risks that go with their moderate consumption. At some point, though, the United States is going to need to forsake profit for reason when it comes to drug policy. Until then, about the best we can hope for is a wise alien making off with the "smart" girl to warn us of marijuana's dangers. Perhaps the new couple celebrated in a celestial galaxy somewhere with margaritas and Cosmopolitans -- just as long as it wasn't pot.

A Keith Richards memoir?

Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist, has signed an $8.2 million deal to write his autobiography, which is slated for a 2010 release.

Having never been a Stones fan, I'll take a pass on Richards's book. I do have one question, though: How the hell will he be able to remember anything that happened last week, much less delve into his childhood? Perhaps we'll find out the truth about whether he really snorted his father's ashes.

This might well be the world's shortest memoir ever -- until Alberto Gonzales writes his.

Wear your bike helmet!

Yesterday I experienced a terrible crash on my bike. Consistent with the black cloud that follows me most of the time, I was in a remote part of the Little Falls bike and walking path that runs parallel to Little Falls Creek and ultimately feeds into the Crescent Trail. I was biking across an old wooden bridge, one that I've crossed a many, many times, when my front tire hit some strange object and pushed my bike into the steel rail. My handlebars caught part of the rail and forced my face right into the steel. My bike collapsed and I fell face first again onto the concrete path, tearing open my right shoulder and scraping open my knee. My ankles caught the metal spikes on the petals and cut open as well. Luckily, a runner stopped to see if I was all right. I lied and said I was, and proceeded to bike the remaining five miles home dripping blood.

I spent five hours in the E.R. last night over at Suburban Hospital. I could have gotten out sooner if I hadn't needed a plastic surgeon to stitch up my upper lip. No complaints.

I do know this, though. Had I not been wearing a bike helmet this could have been a lot worse. The blunt force of my face striking the steel rail was slightly blunted my the front of my helmet. The doctor told me that had my helmet not buffered the impact I could have suffered, at minimum, a serious concussion and more serious facial and dental damage. I'd prefer not to think about the worse case scenario.

Every single person that treated me last night, from the intake nurse to the plastic surgeon, asked me if was wearing a bike helmet. Since I started cycling a little over two years ago I've never gone out without one. And for good reason. Consider this my public service announcement for August: wear your bike helmet! It could save your life.

A tribute to Stax Records

Tonight, on PBS, you can learn about the best-kept secret in the history of American music -- Stax Records, the Memphis-based label that produced some of the best soul and R&B recordings of the 1960s and early 70s before it dissolved into bankruptcy in 1975.

The "Stax sound" was anchored by some of the great rhythm sections in studio music -- Al Jackson, Jr. and Carl Cunningham on drums, Steve Cropper on guitar, Duck Dunn on bass, and there were many more. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Issac Hayes all put some of their earliest and best work down at Stax.

Read more about Stax and tonight's show here.